Research Case Studies: Carrier IQ & Smartphone Privacy

By now most of you have probably heard about the Carrier IQ, the “mobile service intelligence solutions” provider that generated a storm of controversy earlier this month for developing hidden software that logs user activity and relays it to wireless carriers, from personal text messages to Google searches.

Interestingly enough, the story broke on November 28 when a 25 year-old security researcher named Trevor Eckhart posted a 17-minute video to YouTube exposing and condemning the software at length. Earlier in the month, Eckhart actually published two posts about the software on his blog — which lead Carrier IQ to issue him a “cease and desist letter, ” although the company retracted this letter shortly after Eckhart began working with the EFF.

In the days that followed the video’s release, numerous news sites, blogs, and social networks  picked up the Carrier IQ story, leading to widespread outcry from smartphone users, a surge of “how-to” posts for removing or disabling Carrier IQ software, and several official responses from major cell phone companies and wireless carriers.

On December 1, Senator Al Franken sent an open letter to Carrier IQ with pointed questions about the software and the information that it tracks. On December 7, the FBI turned down a FOIA request, filed by Michael Morisy of Muckrock News, for “manuals, documents or other written guidance used to access or analyze data gathered by programs developed or deployed by Carrier IQ” — on the grounds that such documents are “law enforcement records.”  This week, on December 12, Carrier IQ released a 19-page document entitled “Understanding Carrier IQ Technology,” repeating previous denials that its software logs keystrokes or improperly collects user data.

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Aside from the obvious relevance of the Carrier IQ story to communication students and faculty, it’s fascinating to take a step back and ponder the amount of information that’s surfacing in reference to Carrier IQ — in essence, the amount of research that’s going into each of these links and articles.

Take, for example, the number of primary documents involved in the story. We’ve got:

… not to mention the statements released by cell phone companies and carriers, either confirming or denying their relationship with Carrier IQ, and the old reports and articles about Carrier IQ that are likely informing many journalists’ knowledge of the company’s history and success to date.

The lesson here, at least from a librarian perspective,  is that research skills are easily as much part of professional journalism as they are a part of communication academia.

Most casual information consumers don’t stop to consider that the news they read, watch, and listen to is jam-packed with facts, statistics, quotes, and evidence collected by good, old-fashioned document chasing (i.e. not just interviews and phone calls).

From requesting public records to querying news databases for relevant secondary sources, savvy journalists today must constantly embrace and demonstrate their  repertoire of practical research skills.

So next time you come across a fascinating piece of breaking news, ask yourself: “what research went into making this?”

The answer — or occasional lack thereof — might surprise you. Certainly, it’s worth a thought, for all the future journalists out there.

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